How are you going to grab the reader’s attention in the first 5 pages?

It doesn’t matter how good the end of your book is if the reader isn’t swooped in by the beginning.

The beginning needs to be a mix of introduction, intrigue, quality writing–and it’s a precarious balance. Too plodding and you’ve lost us. Too much information and we’re drowning. There is no room for a slow start and making up time as you go. In fact, the beginning is the hardest and arguably most important part.

But it doesn’t stop at the first five pages. Perfecting those first pages are just the beginning. The whole book needs to be as perfect and well edited as those first five pages. If the beginning isn’t captivating no one will read to the middle and the end–no matter how good the middle and ending might be. So the entirety of the book rests on the quality of those first chapters.

I suppose my message is to write and edit those first 5 pages phenomenally well, but don’t stop. Apply that eagle eye to the whole novel to set a precedent for what is to come with each turning page.

‘Dos’ and ‘Don’ts’ for the start of your novel:

  • Start close as close to the action as you possibly can. No contrived build up. Place us right in the thick of things.
  • Don’t tell us who the characters are and what they’re up to. Show us by placing us in the scene and let the reader work through it with the characters. It’s okay that we don’t know everything when we start.
  • It’s okay for the reader to be confused. That means they’ll want to connect the dots. Just don’t make the dots so far apart that no reader can find their way from one to the other.
  • Assume high intelligence on the part of the reader, that they’ll figure out the setting and stakes of the characters–and want to.
  • Set up the stakes of the novel early. The reader wants to know why they are reading the book.
  • A literary novel does not mean it doesn’t have a plot or stakes. In fact they need to set those very early on too.
  • A commercial novel does not mean plot is all there is. There is setting of the scene and deepening of character motivation to be written.
  • Edit self-indulgent language from the start. No reader is going to want to continue to read something that is merely there to pat the author on the back.
  • Don’t try to get fancy with experimental structure. The established plot structure worked for Shakespeare and it will work for you.

Q: What is your strategy for starting a novel?

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Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

21 thoughts on “How are you going to grab the reader’s attention in the first 5 pages?

  1. I like to start in the most natural of places–maybe in the area where the majority of the story will take place, or in a scene that shows the MC’s personality perfectly. But if that doesn’t fit, I’ll put the reader directly in the action, so maybe they’ll have to climb back out of it and ask, “How do I get back here?!”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting post. I’m most interested in points 2, 3, and 4. I agree with them, yet had a negative reaction to the opening chapter of my thriller, which hits the ground running and was written with those points in mind. Most of my readers felt they didn’t care about the main character because they didn’t know enough about him, and because they didn’t care, they weren’t interested in connecting the dots to find out more. They wanted more right away, which tells me that there is a fine line between too much character setup and not enough.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point: A fine line between too much character setup and not enough. The reader needs to feel invested from the start so we need to learn about the character as the action is happening.


  3. I have not written a novel yet, but I am working on editing the beginning of my first. I struggle a lot with how much to explain and how much to let the reader figure out…but it’s coming along!
    I have question that may show my ignorance- but what do you mean by “indulgent language”?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The biggest thing is getting words on the page! So you have to start somewhere. That’s what revising is for.

      I supposed I meant ‘self indulgent’ and self-serving. The over the top descriptors, over-writing, and the need to craft beautiful sentences instead of what the story actually needs.


  4. I’m incapable of writing only one novel at a time. I’ve been working on mainly one but recently my subconscious kicked my butt and told me, simply put; NO! So this post comes at an extremely advantageous point for me, as I began a new novel only a few days ago. I think it helps me best to think about all these things before starting. Thank you! Definitely adding a few of these to my revision list as well. :D


    1. I don’t represent epic fantasy so I’m not the best person to ask about this. Stick with what you’ve seen work in your genre recently, but most agents are not a big fan of prologues.


  5. I’m so glad to have found this wonderful post! In my current story – I feel it’s been edited to death so I can get the first five right, – I introduced the character, conflict. After reading the post, I think I must have overdone some parts by over describing a little bit too much. Thanks for this post. Now I know what to lookout for to make it better. :)


  6. Stumbled upon this article through the twitterverse :)

    A great post–it reminded me that I’m both a picky reader and a movie-watcher, and I’ll only give a book a few pages or a movie fifteen minutes before I move on to something else, if it hasn’t grabbed my attention.

    I’ll have to work extra hard to apply that to my own writing. I do start in the thick of things, and while I do show quite a bit, this also reminded me that I perhaps spell things out for the reader a bit too much.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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